Cam Ward was set to become a free agent come July 1, and the veteran netminder was going to have to take a pay cut no matter where he went. So, instead of uprooting and looking for work elsewhere, Ward, 32, has decided to remain a Carolina Hurricane on a two-year, $6.6 million deal.
Ward’s deal fits in with what would have been expected for him on a new deal. Ward had earned an average salary of $6.3 million over the past six seasons and was among the league’s highest paid netminders, but his play didn’t reflect that. His new deal sees a drop of $3 million per year in average salary, and in the second year of his contract he’ll earn $3.1 million, which is less than half of his previous cap hit.
Prior to last week, Ward remaining a Hurricane would have been somewhat unexpected. Carolina had made it somewhat evident they were looking for Ward’s replacement when they dealt for Eddie Lack ahead of the 2015-16 season, Ward has all but lost his full-time starting gig and his best years seem to be far behind him. However, comments from Hurricanes GM Ron Francis last week made it sound as though Carolina was considering bringing Ward back into the fold.
“As I sit here today, do I want to want to give up a first-round pick for a goaltender that may have a year or two left on his deal, and then we lose him or get an older guy?” Francis said, via the News & Observer. “Not really the plan that I’m looking for. Cam takes a lot of criticism, but from December to the end of the year (he) was one of the top five goaltenders in the league in goals against and save percentage. I think there’s some merit to revisiting that as we move forward.”
While there are some holes in Francis’ argument about Ward’s standing, statistically, in the league from December onward, it seems as though part of the reason to bring Ward back is familiarity. In a release, Francis said he was glad Ward was coming back and mentioned his long tenure as a Hurricane. However, the move is questionable given the Hurricanes could be just a decent goaltender away from a post-season appearance.
The correlation between underlying numbers and on-ice success has become increasingly evident year after year, and Carolina had the 11th best shot attempts for percentage of any team in the league in 2015-16. The Hurricanes finished only 10 points outside of a playoff spot this past season, though, and one major issue was the goaltending of Ward and Lack. The Hurricanes’ 5-on-5 SP was .915 in 2015-16, ahead of only the .911 mark posted by the Calgary Flames. Ward’s .918 5-on-5 SP was better than Lack’s .910 mark, but both ranked in the bottom six of the 36 netminders to play at least 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5.
Sticking with the duo won’t do much to improve Carolina’s goaltending situation. Lack may still show some improvement — he boasted a .920-plus 5-on-5 SP the two years prior to coming to Carolina — but it’s not as if Ward has his best years ahead of him. And if history is any sign, Ward won’t improve by much, if at all.
Over the past four seasons, 43 goaltenders have played 4,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5. Of those goaltenders, Ward ranks 41st in SP with a mark of .916. The only goaltenders who fared worse are Ben Scrivens and Evgeni Nabokov. Ward’s best years came when he was in his early-to-mid 20s, but he hasn’t posted stellar numbers since his career-best season in 2010-11.
This off-season doesn’t offer a bumper crop of free agent netminders, but James Reimer, Carter Hutton and Al Montoya are all netminders who, while not young, could have come in and played well. All three goaltenders posted better numbers than Ward in 2015-16, and Reimer especially knows how to share the workload and be effective. He could have made a fantastic duo with Lack.
Instead, though, the Hurricanes are sticking with what they know. Re-signing Ward is a show of loyalty to the netminder who has spent his entire career in Carolina, and maybe Ward will have a late-career resurgence and prove everyone wrong. It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
(All advanced stats via Puckalytics.com)